The Many Tastes of Coffee Ice Cream: How to Make Just the Right Scoop for You

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Everyone loves coffee ice cream, but no one can agree on what it should taste like.

Do you like it sweet and creamy, with just a hint of coffee? Or do you take it bold and bracing with just a dash of milk and sugar? Or maybe you prefer it as bitter and concentrated as a shot of espresso, or you want to chew on the steeped coffee grinds left in your scoop, or you want it to taste so little of coffee that Dunkin' Donuts hasn't invented a coffee-flavored milkshake to account for your preferences yet.

Point is, there are countless ways to make coffee ice cream, which is a hazard for recipe developers, because everyone has their own idea of what coffee ice cream should taste like. So what's an ice cream maker to do? Easy: Make them all.

After years tinkering with various recipes, coffee roasts, grind settings, and flavor pairings, I've settled on recipes that run the coffee spectrum from mild to insanely dark and bitter. The goal of doing so isn't to lock you into one camp of ice cream, but to show you how to make any kind of coffee ice cream your heart desires. To wit, here are the general principles to know.

Coffee Ice Cream Basics

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The beans: Use good coffee. Dirt-cheap macro-roasted coffee will make cheap-tasting ice cream, while freshly roasted and ground quality beans will bring depth and character to your base. That freshness does matter; stale-tasting beans make for stale-tasting ice cream. That said, don't worry about getting the best, most expensive, most painstakingly harvested and roasted beans, as the subtle nuances of your favorite coffee will probably get lost in all the sugar and cream. I prefer darker roasts for ice cream purposes, though note the darker your roast, the more bitterness you'll bring to the ice cream.

The grind: A plain medium grind will deliver plenty of coffee flavor while still being large enough for easy filtering later. If you prefer bits of grounds in your coffee, strain your base with a coarser-mesh filter. Prefer to use whole beans? You can, but you'll need to use a lot more of them to achieve the same flavor, and you'll have to steep them into milk and cream separately, a step my approach doesn't require. (More on that below.)

The brew: Many coffee ice creams call for steeping grounds in hot cream and milk, then tempering the hot liquid into egg yolks and sugar. It's a lot of trouble and easily makes a mess, and there's no need to do it. Coffee infuses its flavor quickly into dairy, and in my testing, that flavor doesn't improve with longer steeping. Instead, whisk your grinds directly into your egg yolks and sugar, add milk and cream cold, and cook the base all in one pot. By the time you bring your base to the ideal custard temperature, 170°F, your beans will have given up everything they have to offer.

How to Make it Your Own

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Once you have those basics out of the way, it's easy to customize your recipe to get exactly the flavor and texture you want. My recipes call for anywhere between one and five tablespoons of coffee per quart of ice cream. The low end of that spectrum yields a mild, milky ice cream a lot like a sweet latte (this is what you get from Haagen-Dazs). On the other end you get bolder, bracing flavors with greater bitterness. Use extra-bitter Vietnamese-style or chicory coffee and your ice cream will be all the more intense.

Your other main variables are butterfat content and sugar amounts, and they impact your ice cream pretty much how you'd expect. Higher ratios of cream to milk make richer, more buttery ice creams, and I've found that coffee enhances this butteriness more than most ingredients. Also obvious: more sugar means more sweetness, but as a side effect it also means less bitterness, so if you want a more refreshing, bitter bite to your coffee, cut down on the sugar. Oh, and if you're wondering about how many egg yolks to use, my standard ratio of six yolks per three cups of diary yields a rich, flavorful ice cream that doesn't taste distractingly eggy.

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With these guidelines under your belt, no coffee ice cream is out of reach. Here are six recipes to get you started that range the coffee spectrum, from mild and easygoing to full-blown intense.

  • Coffee 'N Cookies 'N Cream Ice Cream: A vanilla-coffee hybrid that plays fragrant vanilla and bittersweet coffee against each other, then throws in some Oreos for good measure. Mild and sweet with just a hint of coffee.
  • Milky and Mild Coffee Ice Cream: If you take your coffee in sweetened latte form, this may be the ice cream for you. It's a lot like the Haagen-Dazs style of ice cream with a rich, buttery base and a mild kick of coffee.
  • Coffee Cardamom Ice Cream: Coffee and cardamom are a natural pairing around the world, and they do just as well in ice cream form. This is the milky and mild base bolstered by cardamom's citrusy, menthol perfume.
  • Bold and Bracing Coffee Ice Cream: More coffee and less cream make for big coffee flavor and a refreshing scoop that's creamy but not distractingly rich. Like an iced coffee with just a splash of milk and sugar.
  • Vietnamese Coffee Ice Cream: Made with ultra-dark Vietnamese-style coffee grinds and sweetened with rich condensed milk, this ice cream is intense, with a pronounced bitterness and caramelized sweetness. Use a not-too-fine mesh filter to let some of the grinds make their way into the final ice cream for an extra-flavorful kick.
  • Irish Coffee Ice Cream with Shaved Dark Chocolate and Candied Pecans: Okay, so this is more a boozy caramel ice cream than a coffee flavor, but it uses coffee to add a jolt of clean bitterness to cut the richness of burnt sugar and whiskey. A full-flavored ice cream that takes coffee to new, exciting places.